That's the seemingly simple take Adam Schwartz has on admissions and the role of your essay.
Schwartz -- who taught writing at Harvard and Wellesley universities for 25 years, served on the Wellesley Board of Admissions and now runs Write Advantage Tutoring -- thinks that "the most effective way to hold an admissions officer’s interest is to keep the reader in suspense about the meaning you discover in the experience you narrate."
Writing on the Wicked Local site in Newton, Mass., Schwartz relates a story of his first day on the Board of Admissions. After reading a student's file -- including the Common App, personal statement, transcripts, test scores, recommendations and the supplemental essay -- the dean asked, "What is this student's story?"
"She had clarified for me the challenge faced by every admissions officer -- to see a compelling individual story cohere from so many different sources of information."
Schwartz offers one strategy that is likely to make most seniors groan: Write TWO essays and pick the best from both.
"I know that writing another essay seems like a real chore, but an additional essay can help clarify the key themes of your story," he says. "Indeed, a truly excellent personal statement can enhance your entire application by establishing a theme to which all the all the other materials contribute. More often than not, you can find a way to include details from the essay you don’t use in other sections of the Common Application."
I've talked here about content of your essay, the title and the psychological process to get yourself ready to write. But what about style?
Allen Grove -- former director of a program for new college students, a professor of English and a freelance writer who focuses on college admissions -- offers (yet another) Top 10 list for college essays, this one pointing out some key danger zones of essay style. Among them:
- Wordiness and repetition: "Wordiness is by far the most common stylistic error," says Grove, blogging on About.com. "In most cases, students could cut one-third of an essay, lose no meaningful content, and make the piece much more engaging and effective."
- Vague and imprecise language: "If you find that your essay is filled with words like 'stuff' and 'things' and 'aspects' and 'society,' you may also find that your application ends up in the rejection pile."
- Clichés: "You are trying to get the admissions officers excited about you and your essay topic, but there is nothing exciting about clichés. Instead, they diminish the essay's message and reveal the author's lack of creativity."
- Flowery language: "Too many adjectives and adverbs can ruin the reading experience.
All too often, students "bomb" their college essays, delivering "boring space fillers that actually make them less appealing as applicants," says Sandra Moore.
Moore, owner of Next Step College Counseling, lays much of that blame on high school English teachers, most most of whom "have never worked in college admissions and, in turn, not had the chance to see first-hand from that perspective what makes for a compelling piece."
"These days, with grade inflation, more and more institutions going test-optional and the ease of applying to a gazillion schools using the Common Application, a well-conceived and constructed essay can truly help a kid -- even one with a so-so record--stand out," Moore writes in the Poughkeepsie Journal.
Arnie Rosenberg is the founder of The Center for Essay Excellence. He writes regularly about college essays and their importance to the college-admission process. Contact him at Arnie.Rosenberg.Editor@gmail.com.